An Interview with Althea Thauberger
From the Bonhice Psychiatric Hospital in Prague to the Kandahar International Airport in southern Afghanistan, Vancouver-based artist and filmmaker Althea Thauberger is known for her collaborative use of video, performance and audio to produce works that intimately represent specific institutions, individuals and communities. The result? An immersive experience that inspires viewers to think critically about history, and political and social power relations.
Thauberger recently investigated the fascinating archival collection of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) Still Photography Division as a basis for a new video work, titled L’arbre est dans ses feuilles. The project was co-commissioned by the Canadian Photography Institute (CPI) of the National Gallery of Canada and the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC) for the exhibition, In Search of Expo 67. MAC is presenting the show to mark the 50th anniversary of the Montreal World’s Fair.
Originally a part of the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography (CMCP), the NFB Stills Division archive is now held at CPI. The incredible collection includes thousands of photographic negatives by many leading Canadian photographers from the 1960s and 1970s, such as Lutz Dille, Pierre Gaudard, Ted Grant and Michael Semak. It also features the descriptive cataloguing cards and images printed and mounted on grey cards that were originally used by the Still Photography Division to organize, view and order prints.
To create a work that re-frames histories related to the archive, Thauberger has drawn inspiration from the People Tree, a structure with photographs created by the NFB for Expo 67. The time Thauberger spent with the collection strengthened her interest in Lorraine Monk, the executive producer of the Still Photography Division from 1960–1980, as well as projects developed under Monk’s direction, such as the publication, Call Them Canadians: A Photographic Point of View (1968).
In this interview, Thauberger shares insights about her art practice, as well as what it was like working with this rich photographic archive.
NGCM: Your new work was commissioned as a part of the In Search of Expo 67 exhibition at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. Can you tell us a bit about your involvement with this exhibition?
AT: It started with an invitation from the curators, Lesley Johnstone and Monika Kin Gagnon. I had been thinking about the NFB Still Division and its work with the People Tree for a few years. The curators knew of this and asked me to do something related to the People Tree for the show. This led me, of course, to the holdings of the CPI at the National Gallery, and to have the extraordinary opportunity to spend time exploring that archive. The exhibition is both a historical survey, as well as a display of new work by contemporary artists. Most of the new pieces, including mine, have been commissioned for the show in response to various aspects of Expo 67.
NGCM: How did you first approach L’arbre est dans ses feuilles? Did you have an overall vision in mind from the beginning?
AT: I had in mind from the beginning that the work would probably be an experimental video work, largely because this is the kind of work that I’ve been making recently. A video work is also a way to bring together different kinds of material, such as images, interviews and audio material.
I also had to consider the very charged issues in thinking about nationhood and the production of national identity through the use of photography and the establishment and reinforcement of institution. Especially in relation to this year’s anniversary, it is important to think critically about these histories. There is a real kind of violence in the reality of producing the imagery of a nation, both physically and psychologically. It’s not a neutral thing. There were erasures of identities and dispossession that are a part of our history.
In the early stages of the project, I was working with Annabel Vaughan. She is an architect and has been a collaborator in the past, and it was Annabel who first told me about the People Tree.
NGCM: What inspiration did you draw from the CPI’s NFB Still Photography collection at the NGC?
AT: The first thing was to really get inside the archive and see its textures and the layers. For my work, this simply involved me getting into the drawers and pulling out grey cards. Doing this enabled me to see the way that those images were analyzed and categorized. It gave me a sense of priority and understanding of structures, not just in terms of the archive, but in terms of broader societal things.
Engaging with this archive is not just about the present and the information of the image, it’s about what was valued and what the systems around the uses of the information were at the time of its creation. What emerged while spending time with this material was an archive that existed in one part for PR propaganda purposes, and in another, was a way to have a new vision for the purpose of photography.
As Andrea Kunard (Associate Curator at CPI) and Carol Payne (Associate Professor at Carleton University) have described in brilliant and informed ways, we can see an expressive turn that happened with the use of photography and the direction of the photographic gaze under Lorraine Monk. These were all things that I was really getting inside of while I was looking at the images and having a more intimate relationship with them.
NGCM: Do you think the NFB Still Photography collection would prove valuable to other artists as well?
AT: Absolutely. There’s so much there! There are so many different approaches that could be taken with this collection. I feel like I just scratched the surface. The availability of the collection is also remarkable. It’s such an important part of the history of the NFB and it provides a way to reflect back on the production of “Canada” in a way that is important to understanding how we got to where we are. It is inspiring and scary. I think it would be a wonderful opportunity for artists with various interests and perspectives to be able to spend time working with this collection.
NGCM: Your work Songstress (2001-02) is currently on view in the NGC’s Contemporary Galleries as part of Canadian and Indigenous Art: 1968 to Present. Can you speak to the importance of the female voice as a point of reference in this piece? Does it draw parallels between some of the ideas you are exploring in L’arbre est dans ses feuilles?
AT: It’s interesting because in my new work all of the voices will be women. The question of gender dynamics has been an important one for me from the beginning of my artistic practice. Songstress was one of the first works that I made that was exhibited fairly widely; I made it while I was a graduate student and I was just at the beginning of my practice.
Songstress is documentary but it is also a little bit autobiographical in the sense that, as a young woman, I was interested in thinking about my own voice and my relationship to being a woman, to femininity, and to the certain kinds of expressive conventions around women’s voices. So Songstress is a question of certain notions of essentialism that are imposed on and, in some cases, embraced by young women.
An ongoing question that I’ve had while working in the Still Division archive involves my interest in Lorraine Monk. I’ve been spending time in an archive that was expanded and directed by Monk, a woman, and, again, she was a woman who was in a male dominated sphere. I wonder about the way that she saw her role; if she saw herself as a feminist, if she saw her role as one that could open space for women, if she had a different perspective than the one she was inside of.
Many of the images in the collection speak to stereotypes about women. Overall the archive itself embodies a kind of male subject position, with sexist, patriarchal views and descriptions of women. There are exceptions to that, of course, but really, I couldn't ignore the gender dynamics while I was looking at those images. These are questions that I’ve had since the beginning of my practice.
I think Songstress is a work that, in a way, embodies the constraints that women artists find themselves in. The work is structural. There’s a young artist featured in each segment, and it’s shot in a way that has a lot of constraints. You see a young artist, a singer-songwriter, battling with the conventions that she’s chosen to work within. There’s a sentimentality, but you also see struggle and resistance in the work. I think questions of confinement and resistance carry through in all of my work, with regards to representation, and are very much a part of L’arbre est dans ses feuilles and of Songstress.
NGCM: What advice would you give to an emerging artist?
AT: I think the most important thing for emerging artists and non-emerging artists is to make a community. You need a community to support you. You need a community to grow in, and that’s something that you have to participate in and invest in. It is essential for survival and keeping yourself nurtured. That means being involved in an active conversation, which isn’t just about talking. It’s about making work in relation to other people’s work. Those conversations that you have amongst your peers and the support systems that you create are really important in the long term.
Thauberger’s piece Songstress is on view in the National Gallery of Canada’s presentation titled Canadian and Indigenous Art: 1968 to Present until April 30, 2018. In Search of Expo 67 is on view at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal until October 9, 2017.